Commune Council Vote Marked by Low Turnout

Voter turnout dropped to 70 percent in Sunday’s commune council election, significantly lower than in any other nationwide poll since the Untac elections of 1993, the Nation­al Election Committee said.

The NEC claimed at a press conference that despite the lower percentage, absolute numbers of voters were still higher than in the 2002 commune elections, though they declined to release comparative figures.

Voter apathy may have played a role, the NEC also said.

But the NEC, voting monitors and ob­servers agreed Sunday the election environment has been less violent with fewer irregularities.

Up until now, voter turnout since 1993 has reached well above 80 percent. National elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003 respectively brought in 89.56 percent, 93.74 percent and 83.22 percent of the registered electorate, while 86.25 percent turned out for the 2002 commune elections, according to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

Independent election monitors, who put the nationwide turnout at between 60 and 70 percent, said the turnout was likely low because registered voters lacked adequate identity documents, which were required to vote Sunday.

Voters also faced difficulty finding their names on voting lists.

Turnout dropped as low as 30 to 40 percent in Ratanakkiri province and 20 to 30 percent in Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet commune, ac­cording to Mar Sophal, Comfrel monitoring coordinator.

“Twenty percent is not really democratic, because it’s not the majority,” he said at a press conference two hours after the polls had officially closed at 3 pm Sunday.

Voting cards from previous elections were not recognized this year, and voters were required to produce an identity document at the polls that closely matched their personal information on the voting list.

Tarikul Ghani, director of programs at the National Democratic Institute, agreed that lack of identification, as well as difficulty obtaining NEC-produced documents known as the 1018 form, may have contributed to the drop in attendance at the polls.

“The low turnout is an issue that needs to be looked into,” he said.

He added that the elections proceeded peacefully, which showed progress over previous elections that saw violence mount as polling days approached.

Voting monitors and independent observers, as well as the NEC, echoed this sentiment Sunday, saying that the election environment has improved. Observers and monitors mostly reported what they termed “technical” difficulties, rather than problems such as violence or threats.

Voters around the country had difficulty locating their names on lists at polling stations, according to several monitors and observers. In many of the cases, names were found on lists at different polling stations, or at an unexpected place in the voter list because of how they were spelled. Comfrel also reported Sunday that some local authorities showed “ignorance” and only as­sisted members of their own parties at the polls.

In Kandal province’s Takhmau district Sunday morning, Tann Da I stood in front of the list outside Takhmau commune’s polling station number 1067, where Prime Minister Hun Sen had cast his ballot an hour before.

Though she had a valid 1018 form and a voter information notice indicating her polling station and the spelling of her name on the voter list, Tann Da I could not seem to locate herself on the list.

After much re-reading and help from observers, polling agents and bystanders, Tann Da I found her name under the “C’s,” spelled Chea I.

A despondent-looking Prunh Sary, who was attempting to vote for the first time, sat on a bench by the polling office waiting for someone to help her find her name. “I am happy, but worried about how I will vote,” said the 18-year-old.

Voting monitors said Sunday evening that it was too early to tell how many voters who had difficulty locating their names were ultimately able to find them.

“A lot of people could not find their names” on lists at polling stations, said Kek Galabru, founder of rights group Licadho and chair of the board of the Neutral and Im­partial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

Some of Licadho’s 130 ob­ser­vers, most of whom were stationed in Phnom Penh, spent much of their time helping voters find their names rather than monitoring, Kek Galabru said.

One Takeo province polling station was closed down for 20 minutes after a crowd of assembled voters, who were searching for their names on posted lists, erupted in “anarchy,” Kek Galabru said.

More than 19,000 people were accredited by the NEC to observe the elections, according to Hang Puthea, director of Nicfec.

Comfrel said it had so far receiv­ed 40 complaints about names on the voting list or other irregularities, most of them filed by the SRP.

The NEC, Comfrel and Nicfec also reported isolated incidents of intimidation or more serious violations. In one Kompong Thom province commune, a voter wrap­ped his ballot around a smoldering cigarette before dropping it into the box, NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said, adding that this was the first time such a thing had happened.

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